A stroke can have devastating health consequences, and a recent report has found yet another impact.
The American Stroke Association and American Heart Association last month said in a report that up to 60 percent of stroke survivors may develop cognitive decline within a year, and that cognitive impairment is most common within the first two weeks after a stroke.
That’s because a stroke damages the brain, and those effects can spread.
“’Stroke’ is kind of a layman’s term for [when] you basically have some sort of insult or damage to the brain, related to either a blood clot or a bleed,” says Dr. Angela Hsu, director of memory care services and a primary care doctor at Kaiser Permanente.
Slurred speech or trouble with movement, particularly on one or the other side of the body, are classic effects. These effects can correspond to the area of the brain that the stroke happened in, but not always.
“When the brain has had a stroke, it’s kind of under shock a little bit,” Hsu adds. “And so it probably affects how the rest of the brain is going to work and function as well.” A stroke “might also involve some areas of the brain that are helping with regulating your mood, or motivation, or your memory, or cognitive processing, executive function — all those things.”
“Brain cells are not perfectly distributed,” Hsu says. “So sometimes, you can have an effect that isn’t just the focal area of the stroke, because the damage might affect neurons or connections that do other things as well.”
How to Minimize Risks
The new information makes it even more important to minimize the risk of stroke, and we know how to do that.
A stroke is a vascular event, Hsu says, “and so vascular risk factors, like high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol — these are all things that increase our risk of strokes. So if you have these conditions, you absolutely want to make sure they’re as well controlled as you can.”
After a stroke, your brain “still has a lot of ability to recover its function,” Hsu says. Physical, occupational and cognitive therapy can help your brain learn how to bypass damaged areas, but you need to move fast: “That immediate period could be days, weeks, months.”
In addition to the classic aftereffects, transient vision changes, confusion, dizziness, or headaches are some more subtle indications — it’s possible to have a stroke without knowing it until much later.
But if you do have symptoms, “it is important to get that checked out right away,” Hsu says.
Some treatments only work in the first three hours after the attack, she says. “So if there’s a question about whether you think you’re having a stroke, definitely get it checked out right away.”
Some of the more common causes of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, aren’t yet preventable. “[But if] we’re talking about preventable causes of dementia, preventing strokes, preventing that vascular disease, is a big target,” Hsu says.
That means watching your diet, keeping cholesterol and blood pressure under control, and exercising.
“Getting that blood pumping to the brain, where it’s making the blood vessels healthier, it’s bringing nutrients, it’s clearing toxins out, is one of the most significant things you can do to reduce your risk of stroke and dementia.”
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